Les amants criminels

DIRECTED BY: François Ozon

FEATURING: Natacha Régnier, Jérémie Renier, Miki Manojlovic, Salim Kechiouche

PLOT: High schooler Alice seduces shy Luc into a plot to kill her ex-boyfriend; they get lost in the woods while burying the body and stumble upon a cabin, whose lone occupant captures them for his own ends.

Still from Criminal Lovers (1999)

COMMENTS: Let’s begin at the end, with two men in custody and a young woman gunned down by the police. Criminal Lovers dabbles in the language of fairy tales, so it would be natural to expect some kind of a moral here at the end of the journey. But writer-director François Ozon is much more interested in the morally compromised, and arguably all three of these people have done something to earn their fate. So the closest thing to a life lesson might be: those who do bad things will ultimately pay the price.

The most commonly referenced fairy tale in reviews of Criminal Lovers is “Hansel and Gretel” (a tale we have encountered here a few times before). At face value, the comparison is apt: a boy and girl get lost in the woods, and encounter a malevolent force who plans to eat them. But fairy tales are dependent upon a clear division of good and evil, and Criminal Lovers has not a good soul in sight. This is most evident in the personage of Alice, the amoral teen who leads on her erstwhile paramour Saïd, and then persuades the feckless Luc to join in her murder plot. The film believes it is revealing the depth of Alice’s monstrousness as we go, as it flashes back to her repeated machinations with Luc, as well as to a literature class where she reads the poetry of Rimbaud with a clearly sinister interpretation. But Ozon establishes her unscrupulous nature in the very first scene, as she lies to Saïd while teasing him. Even more than the world of fairy tales, we seem to be deep in the realm of the murderous femme fatale, a genre populated by such films as The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Honeymoon Killers, and most especially Double Indemnity.

That’s where the movie’s biggest twist comes into play, in which a nameless Woodsman captures the couple and proceeds to lavish his attentions not on Alice, but on the guileless Luc. Ozon seems intent on subverting the traditional male gaze, as Luc becomes the subject of the Woodsman’s carnal urges. This, even as the tensions are kept high by the suggestions that both teens are likely to end up on the grizzled man’s dinner plate. Ozon doesn’t focus on the anticipated violence; it’s your expectations for the romantic partnerships that he wants to disrupt. This was shocking 25 years ago, and it’s still a decent surprise today.

The way that Alice is kept around to act as an ugly counterpart to the ongoing gay seduction hints at the film’s sensibilities. Despite being trapped in the crawlspace beneath the Woodsman’s cabin, she still seizes upon every opportunity to rattle Luc’s cage, patronizingly complimenting him on finally achieving arousal during one of the hermit’s assaults, or laughing bitterly as she clues him in to the source of the meat he has just consumed. The film suggests that Luc is a more innocent soul, having done Alice’s bidding despite not really being into her (or, possibly, to women at all). Alice, even when she is in the most peril, is still a bad, bad lady.

Criminal Lovers makes a final strange turn in the final scenes, when Luc and Alice make their escape and the film turns into a full-on parody, as the pair frolic in a pool beneath a waterfall and finally consummate their union in the forest while woodland creatures cavort around their intertwined bodies and lush music plays. It’s played for laughs and eye rolls, and seems to be mocking the audience’s expectations as much as the conventions of fairy tale romance. It’s a solid joke, but coming on the heels of the tense thriller, the forbidden romance, and the dark character study, it becomes just one-too-many shifts in tone for a film that never settles on any one. So that final scene, with the violent end to one character and the probable lifelong incarceration of the other two, doesn’t pack a punch on its own. It’s been too inconsistent to make an impression at the end. Criminal Lovers always keeps you guessing, but never seems to have a final answer.


“At times, the film’s mordant absurdity plays with poetry, but of the most self-conscious brand… It’s one of those cases where the director trips over his own brains; he’s too smart for his own good.” – Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Motyka, whose assesses the film as “definitely weird, if a little pretentious [well, it’s French.]” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)


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